A rendering of the BCGEU's proposed rental development at Palm Ave. City of Burnaby

The question of consultation: What does it take to amend a community plan in Burnaby?

What’s in a public hearing? Does the opportunity to speak to Burnaby city council about a proposed project count as robust consultation?

By Srushti Gangdev | May 3, 2022 |5:00 am

What’s in a public hearing? Does the opportunity to speak your mind to city council about a proposed development count as robust consultation? And even when dozens of people appear at council to share their thoughts, who do these hearings leave out?

The concept of consultation has become a sticking point in Burnaby council chambers recently, particularly over a project proposed by the BC General Employees’ Union that would add just under 150 affordable rental units to the city’s housing stock—50% of the total units, and well over the 20% required by the city’s inclusionary rental policy.

But the development at Palm Ave has come under fire from some in the Royal Oak community, who say it’s an example of ‘spot rezoning’ that would require an amendment to the official community plan (OCP) for the area.

At an April 25 meeting, city council passed a motion to forward the rezoning bylaw to a third reading. Only two councillors voted against the project—both Colleen Jordan and Dan Johnston told their colleagues that they didn’t wish to amend the OCP without “proper consultation”.

But the meeting came weeks after a public hearing where council members received 236 letters in regards to the project, heard from 50 speakers, and also received a petition with 466 signatures opposing the project.

Although the public hearing covered both the rezoning bylaw itself and the amendment to the OCP required by the development, Jordan told the Beacon in an interview that the city still hadn’t undertaken any actual consultation with the public on the matter.

“There needs to be some. There was none. Nothing, zero, nada, not a single thing,” she said.

“When [OCPs are] changed or amended, according to the Local Government Act, the city must—now, here’s the catch—consider whether or not to consult with the community. So I guess, in this instance, they considered not to bother with consulting with the community.”

For instance, Jordan said, mailers were sent out to anyone living near the Willingdon Lands site at Willingdon Ave and Canada Way to notify them of information sessions with staff where they could present their feedback and concerns to the city. A similar approach could have been taken for the BCGEU project.

However, at the April 25 meeting, Jordan also expressed concern that out of 4,000 mailers sent out, only 40 people had attended a pair of virtual information sessions on the Willingdon Lands project.

At that meeting, she suggested that the mailers should be sent out to people living in a wider radius than the city’s policy requires—to which Coun Sav Dhaliwal said that council couldn’t “pick and choose” which projects it wanted to do additional consultation on.

Cherrypicking and exclusive hearings

The implication that some councillors ‘cherrypick’ which projects to oppose or support on the basis of consultation is one that’s come up a lot in Burnaby council meetings recently.

“One of the inherent flaws is that consultation can be used as an excuse whenever somebody doesn’t actually like a project, or agree with something in principle. And then they say that the project hasn’t gone through enough consultation, or they find some way to oppose the project on the basis of process and following process,” Coun Alison Gu told the Beacon in an interview.

Gu also pointed to the discussion around the Willingdon Lands project to illustrate her point, along with a similarly controversial project planned at Wayburne Ave.

“If you truly wanted to improve the engagement process, there are so many other ways to actually do that, not by arbitrarily choosing a number of value of an area around a project where homeowners receive a card in the mail,” she said.

“Because we know that traditionally speaking—from what I’ve seen at public hearings—it’s the homeowners in the areas who tend to come out in opposition to these projects, because they’re concerned about traffic, and density, and shadows, and things like that. … Do you get inherently better engagement when you increase consultation from 30 meters to 100 meters? Where are these numbers being decided from? They’re not decided from an empirical basis.”

Further, Gu pointed out that public hearings and engagement by their nature are still exclusive. They don’t, for instance, involve people who may well end up calling new developments home several years down the road, once they’re built.

They also exclude people who experience other barriers to local government. Perhaps English is their second language, or they’re recent immigrants unsure of how the system works. Or maybe they just don’t understand urban planning jargon dealing with density or floor area ratio–something most of us can probably relate to.

Gu said in general, municipalities need to look at how they can improve engagement in a way that represents views from all of those people—along with those who do have genuine concerns about a project.

The stability of OCPs

For her part, Jordan said that Burnaby’s OCPs were designed for a reason, and the city should stick to them.

“I mean, the thing about OCPs is the long term vision—‘okay, I’m going to buy a house, a block off Royal Oak, near the SkyTrain, etcetera. Now, what do I expect to be coming in in the future in my neighbourhood? Oh, let me look at the official community plan,’” she said.

“‘Okay, well, I think I can buy a house here because I know there’s not going to be an apartment building come up right next door to me.’ But if you do one-offs like this, then those people get mad at you. And I don’t blame them. That’s the thing about OCPs, it brings stability to the neighbourhood.”

She also noted that in Vancouver, where a controversial 39-floor tower was approved on W Broadway recently, councillors were debating whether to wait until that city put in place a master plan for Broadway.

“And then the irony is that in our situation, we have a plan in place for 20 years. And now there is a proposal to go outside that plan.”

Gu, meanwhile, pointed out the world is not the same place as it was in 1999 when the Royal Oak OCP first came into effect.

And Burnaby is undertaking reviews of all its OCPs over the next few years anyway.

What lies ahead?

With an ongoing housing crisis, Gu said it’s important not to delay projects that are going to add to the city’s affordable housing stock—and those delays will make projects more expensive, along with spending more public money on reports from staff and the like.

In the case of the BCGEU project, Gu suggested that delays could even hamper the union’s ability to provide the discussed 50% of units at affordable rental rates.

BCGEU treasurer Paul Finch told the Beacon that the union saw an opportunity in Burnaby where it could not only build a much-needed office space, but also put into practice some of its own principles on affordable housing.

“We think the conditions are ideal in Burnaby, because of the mayor and the majority of council’s commitment to affordable housing. And unfortunately, not all municipalities have that strong of a commitment. In fact, Burnaby is a leader across the province right now,” Finch said.

“The two councillors, I understand, who took issue with the amendment to the OCP, had absolutely no problem supporting an amendment to the OCP in Metrotown to allow increased density that did not have the same affordability requirements. Obviously, those two positions are incongruent. And so we don’t really believe this is about the OCP.”

In response to concerns raised by Beacon readers that the union could sell the property to a private buyer down the road, or simply decide to raise rents in the two buildings to exorbitant prices, Finch said that the BCGEU is not only accountable to the city’s affordable housing policy, but to its own membership.

Gu also affirmed that the City of Burnaby requires affordable rental rates to be maintained for the lifetime of a project.

Gu said she understands why Burnaby residents in lower-density areas have concerns about possible developments near their homes.

“There’s fear and uncertainty around how it’ll impact their lives.”

Nonetheless, Gu said Burnaby is in the midst of a transition phase—and with change comes opportunities to make the city a more whole place to live that’s inclusive to more people.

“One of the problems with being in the halfway point of Burnaby developing into an actual urban area is that there’s an awkward growing phase. That’s where we are. But I’m hopeful we can accelerate those benefits of living in a complete community,” she said.

“Until then, I don’t think waiting and delaying projects is going to solve those issues—or we’ll be in the same spot seven years later.”

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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